Plot & Creation
The novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward
Once hailed as the harbinger of a new type of Southern novel, DuBose Heyward’s Porgy (1925) emerged at a time of rapid social change. Against a backdrop of urbanization, industrialization, and the mass exodus (known as the “Great Migration”) of African Americans from the rural South to northern cities, Heyward’s novel depicts a black Charleston community and its residents with a sympathy and depth of emotion that were groundbreaking for the time. Like many writers of the literary Southern Renaissance of the 1920s, Heyward explored themes of family, community, and religion, all intertwined with the convoluted forces of race and historical inheritance. White critics of the day saw Porgy as an authentic and universal portrayal of Southern black life, and they attributed this “authenticity” to Heyward’s own family history. Born to an old Charleston society family of constrained finances, Heyward spent time among the black laborers on his aunt’s plantation, sold burial insurance in Charleston’s black neighborhoods, and worked as a clerk for a shipping line, where he came into contact with the black stevedores on the waterfront. But perhaps most influentially, in his youth, his mother helped support the family by collecting (and performing for tour groups) folk tales drawn from the region’s Gullah community.
When George Gershwin read Porgy in 1926, he was immediately struck by the novel’s operatic potential: He had long considered stories of the black South to be the truest representation of American folklore and a necessary foundation for his first full-length opera. By the time Gershwin was ready to begin composing in 1933, DuBose Heyward and his wife, Dorothy, had already adapted the novel into a wildly successful stage play, and many of their alterations are retained in the libretto that the Heywards, Gershwin, and Gershwin’s brother Ira developed for the opera. As in the play, Sportin’ Life takes on a larger and more malign role than in the novel, Bess is less pitiful, and the work arguably ends on a more optimistic note, with Porgy transformed by his resolve to follow Bess to New York. But above all, it is Gershwin’s music, with its jazz rhythms and irresistible melodies, that elevates Heyward’s constrained character types into vividly realized people whose loves and hopes now live on in operatic productions across the globe.
Act I: Catfish Row, a tenement neighborhood of Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1920s
The inhabitants of Catfish Row relax after a day’s work. Clara sings a lullaby to her baby, imagining a future free from hardship. The drug dealer Sportin’ Life; Clara’s husband, Jake; and some of the other men play craps under the disapproving eye of Serena, whose husband, Robbins, is also gambling with the group.
Porgy arrives and is about to join the game when Crown and his partner Bess appear. The fiery-tempered Crown joins the dice game. Drunk and high on drugs, he loses, starts a fight, and kills Robbins with a cotton hook. Crown runs off, telling Bess that he’ll be back for her. The community shuns Bess as they await the arrival of the police. Sportin’ Life offers to take her to New York with him, but she refuses. Only Porgy is sympathetic, offering Bess shelter and protection, which she gratefully accepts.
The following evening, Robbins’s widow, Serena, leads the mourners in prayers. A collection plate is passed around to raise money for Robbins’s burial. Porgy and Bess enter, and Bess offers Serena a contribution. Serena refuses the money, assuming that it comes from Crown, but when Bess explains that the money is actually Porgy’s, Serena accepts it.
When the police arrive, they accuse Peter of Robbins’s murder. Peter tells them that Crown was responsible, but the police unfairly take him away as a material witness. Serena convinces the undertaker to bury Robbins for less than his usual fee, and Bess leads everyone in an exultant spiritual.
A month later, Porgy and Bess have fallen in love. As he watches Jake and the other fishermen mend their nets, Porgy happily reflects that although he is poor, he has everything he needs: a woman he loves, God, and song. Sportin’ Life enters, but before he has an opportunity to peddle any of his “happy dust,” Maria, the matriarch of Catfish Row, chases him away. The “lawyer” Frazier sells Bess a divorce; the fact that she and Crown were never married is just a “complication.”
Everyone is preparing to leave for a church picnic on nearby Kittiwah Island. Sportin’ Life again asks Bess to come with him to New York. He offers her drugs, but she refuses, and Porgy chases him off, telling him to leave Bess alone. Porgy and Bess celebrate their newfound happiness and look forward to being together forever. Porgy insists that Bess should go to the picnic without him. At first, she refuses, not wanting to leave him alone, but eventually she joins the others as they set off for the picnic.
On Kittiwah Island, the community is in high spirts. Sportin’ Life describes his cynical view of religion until Serena chastises him. When the steamboat whistle announces that the time has come to leave, everyone starts to pack up their belongings. Bess hurries back to the ship—until Crown, who has been hiding on the island since Robbins’s murder, calls out to her. He wants Bess, whom he still views as his property, to run away with him. Bess explains that she now has a new life with Porgy, but Crown, resorting to brutality and violence, forces her to remain with him.
A week later, ominous weather threatens the coast, but the fishermen of Catfish Row still leave at dawn for their day’s work at sea. Bess, meanwhile, is heard talking deliriously from Porgy’s room. She has been feverish and ill ever since returning from Kittiwah Island. Peter, released from police custody that morning, advises Porgy to take her to the hospital, but Serena invites her friends to pray for Bess’s recovery instead. Bess finally emerges into the courtyard. She explains to Porgy that she wants to stay with him but Crown has threatened to take her away. Bess is terrified. Porgy promises to protect her, no matter what. Suddenly, a clanging bell warns of an approaching hurricane. The fishermen are still at sea.
The following morning, as the hurricane rages outside, everyone cowers together in Serena’s room to pray for deliverance from the storm. Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door: It’s Crown, seeking shelter and looking for Bess. Bess refuses to go with him, insisting that she wants to stay with Porgy. Crown mocks Porgy and drowns out everyone’s prayers with a vulgar song. At the storm’s height, Clara sees Jake’s boat floating upside down on the water and rushes out to save her husband. Bess begs the men to go after Clara. Throwing his strength and bravery in everyone’s face, Crown heads out into the storm.
By the following night, the storm has passed. The women grieve for those who have been lost, including Jake, Clara and, they assume, Crown. Sportin’ Life appears, mocks their weeping, and hints that Crown is still alive. Bess sings a lullaby, comforting Clara’s baby. Under the cover of darkness, Crown steals in and approaches Porgy’s door, but Porgy, who has been waiting for him, strikes and kills Crown.
The next afternoon, the police detective returns to Catfish Row, accompanied by the coroner. They are investigating Crown’s murder. Serena and the other women pretend to know nothing about it. The police then go to Porgy’s room and tell him he must come with them and identify Crown’s body. Horrified by the idea of looking at Crown’s dead face, Porgy refuses to go. The police drag him off.
With Porgy gone, Sportin’ Life sees an opportunity to get Bess for himself. He convinces her that Porgy will be locked up indefinitely and tells her that if she follows him to New York, he can offer her a wonderful new life. At first, Bess spurns him, but when he convinces her to take some “happy dust,” he knows that she will soon be dependent on the drug—and him.
A week later, the inhabitants of Catfish Row greet each other as a new day dawns. Porgy returns from jail in a jubilant mood, distributing gifts that he bought with money he won playing dice in jail. Unaware of his friends’ unease, he calls out for Bess—but there is no answer. Eventually, Serena and Maria reveal that Bess has gone to New York with Sportin’ Life. Hearing this, Porgy calls for his crutch and sets out to find Bess as if on his way to the Promised Land.
George Gershwin is born on September 26 in Brooklyn, New York, the second son of Moishe Gershovitz and Rose Bruskin, both RussianJewish immigrants. Around the time of his arrival in the U.S., Moishe adopts the name of Morris Gershvin. He and Rose become naturalized citizens in 1898.
The Gershvins embrace the trappings of middle-class America and purchase a piano. According to family lore, as soon as it is set in place, George sits at the instrument and plays a popular tune. He soon begins piano lessons in the family’s neighborhood on the Lower East Side.
Always an indifferent student outside of his piano lessons, Gershwin drops out of high school and takes a job working for a music publisher in Tin Pan Alley on 28th Street, the center of sheet music production for consumption by the general public. Gershwin works as a “song plugger,” tasked with playing and singing the firm’s songs for prospective customers.
Gershwin leaves Tin Pan Alley and begins working on Broadway, initially as a rehearsal pianist but soon as a song composer. His first full score is for the slapstick musical comedy La-La-Lucille!, which opens on Broadway in 1919.
Shuffle Along, an all-black musical comedy by a quartet of African American vaudeville performers, premieres on Broadway. The show is a sensation, attracting sold-out audiences and launching the careers of Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson. Attended by George and Ira Gershwin, as well as many of the other Broadway celebrities of the day, Shuffle Along proves that musicals with African American casts can be financially successful, and it inspires a succession of all-black musicals throughout the 1920s.
Gershwin composes Blue Monday, a one-act opera for six African American characters and chorus.
Gershwin’s first extended concert work, Rhapsody in Blue, premieres at New York’s Aeolian Hall with the composer himself at the piano. The work immediately wins acclaim for the way it melds the sounds of jazz with the classical piano concerto, and Gershwin calls it “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.”
DuBose Heyward, a little-known poet from Charleston, publishes his first novel, Porgy.
Gershwin receives a copy of Heyward’s Porgy from Ira’s sister-in-law and finds in it his long-sought source for a truly American operatic story. He contacts Heyward and the two begin conversations about turning it into an opera.
Dorothy Heyward, together with her husband, adapts Porgy for the stage. The play premieres at New York’s Guild Theatre on October 1, 1927, and will prove to be one of the greatest theatrical successes of the 1920s.
Gershwin and Heyward begin work on the opera via correspondence. Heyward and Ira Gershwin collaborate closely on the lyrics.
Heyward invites Gershwin to spend time in the Carolinas to learn some of the region’s music. Gershwin has already visited Heyward twice (bookending a New Year’s vacation to Palm Beach with short stints in Charleston the previous winter), but the five weeks he spends with Heyward in the summer of 1934 offer him a chance to make serious progress on the opera. While in Charleston, Gershwin attends a number of spiritual performances and prayer meetings. In January 1935, Gershwin completes a condensed score.
Porgy and Bess premieres on September 30 at the Colonial Theater in Boston; the show is nearly four hours long. Knowing that an opera of this length will be extremely grueling for Broadway singers (who typically perform eight shows a week), Gershwin agrees to make cuts to the score before its opening in New York the following month. On October 10, Porgy and Bess has its Broadway premiere at the Alvin Theatre.
Gershwin begins suffering from headaches. Doctors discover a brain tumor and perform emergency surgery, but Gershwin dies on July 11. At his funeral, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise remarks, “There are countries in Central Europe which would have flung out this Jew. America welcomed him and he repaid America by singing America’s songs with the gusto of a child, with a filial tenderness of a son.”